Found in Translation

The Year of the Plague Still Plays Like a Cinematic Prophecy

Before Contagion, this Mexican movie nailed the sci-fi subgenre.

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Inside a crowded subway car, a man coughs loudly just before collapsing to the shock of his fellow passengers. Over the course of the next few months, many more people will die from a mysterious respiratory disease that seems to have emerged without warning.

That opening alone could trigger memories from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s the incisive social commentary that makes the 1979 film The Year of the Plague (El año de la peste) truly pertinent to our current reality. It plays like a cinematic prophecy.

Mexican master Felipe Cazals directed the ambitious ensemble piece from a screenplay co-written by Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez (one of Latin America’s most lauded scribes), Juan Arturo Brennan, and José Agustín. Their clinical chronicle liberally transposes Daniel Defoe’s 18th-century novel A Journal of the Plague Year to the context of a modern developing nation.

As more casualties of this unknown infection land in the morgue, Dr. Pedro Sierra Genovés (Alejandro Parodi), a practitioner at an upscale hospital, develops a theory. He suspects that the illness, which is rapidly spreading across the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city, is the same that brutally decimated the world’s population over centuries: the merciless bubonic plague.

“Don’t tell me that the gringos invaded us?” Sierra Genovés’ wife asks when he suggests she and their daughters take precautions by boiling water and milk before drinking it. Her comment reflects the shadow of American interventionism in Latin America at the time, which had a hand in the violent incidents against Mexican students only a few years prior.

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Released in 1976, Cazals’ previous film, Canoa: A Shameful Memory, the defining work of his career and now part of the Criterion Collection, addressed how those in power, including members of the Catholic Church, manipulated the most vulnerable segments of the citizenry to vilify the student movement, portraying them as atheist communists.

That theme runs even more catastrophically through The Year of the Plague. Despite concerns from multiple experts, the government embarks on a misinformation campaign to avoid mass panic at the expense of countless lives. Preserving a façade of control matters far more to the authorities than the looming public health pandemonium.

To contain the spread, officials track down anyone who came in contact with the first batch of fatal cases. They visit schools to determine if children have contracted the virus, and when a few kids perish, the doctors are instructed to lie to the press about the cause.

More alarming sights follow. People in bright yellow hazmat suits, closer in look to astronaut wear, enter a building to sanitize it with thick yellow foam and bring out residents wrapped in metallic body bags. Yet, on the evening news, a popular anchor peddles the official account that it was a gas leak that prompted the quick evacuation.

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It would be easy to compare Cazals’ fragmented account of these fictional events to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a more recent work with a nearly identical subject matter and similar multilinear narrative structure. But while both movies jump between plotlines in order to paint a full picture of the situation from a variety of angles, there’s an effectively unsettling lack of emotion and a visual straightforwardness in The Year of the Plague.

Tensions mount as bodies line the streets. When protests erupt, they are met with oppressive force, further revealing how bureaucratic hierarchies take precedence over the safety of the masses, as well as the TV network’s collusion with government officials.

Their efforts to conceal the horrors are futile. The world learns of the disease — and of the morally reprehensible cover-up — when a Norwegian diplomat falls victim to the aggressive illness. The Mexican president himself becomes invested in averting further international repercussions during his administration by denying any wrongdoing.

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But for all its insight on class disparities and distrust of institutions, Cazals and his team of writers include a handful of esoteric flourishes that see this scientifically cataclysmic crisis as more of a metaphysical occurrence. Eva (Rebeca Silva), a humble epidemiology student in a romantic affair with Sierra Genovés, not only confronts the doctor with the perils of his bourgeois life but also implies that perhaps a comet is to blame for the collective ailment.

Elsewhere, an elderly man hosts nightly parties to sing among friends as if to deliberately ignore the mayhem outside and surrender to an unnerving, end-of-times joie de vivre.

Even though Cazals avoids putting landmarks on screen and the actual name of the metropolis is never mentioned, there’s no hiding that the story is set and shot in Mexico City. Shots of homeless individuals near death and of unsanitary conditions in the underdeveloped outskirts of town speak volumes about who this threat affected most.

Later into the ordeal, Sierra Genovés learns that in one of those poor areas, a man who proclaimed himself a prophet has convinced everyone to hand over the young women infected to be sacrificed in order to end the plague. A scene showing one of those girls rescued from being killed by an uneducated angry mob directly echoes Cazals’ Canoa.

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Among the film’s most disturbing images is one exposing a mass grave where the naked bodies of dead people, whose families will likely never know what happened to them, are covered in copious amounts of disinfecting yellow foam. Three men — a doctor, a reporter, and a public official — look on and agree that this is a necessary evil, even praising it as population control. The sequence reads like a reference to the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre where the Mexican armed forces were ordered to murder hundreds of students opposing the Olympic Games. Overnight the government disposed of their bodies and washed their blood from the pavement, vanishing any traces of their existence with complete impunity.

Still, as specific to its time and place as Cazals’ The Year of the Plague is, its observations remain applicable to how today’s culture wars result in real-world atrocities.

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